Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Rick Smith is trying to make the best of a bad situation: the question of students being allowed to transfer out of low-performing public schools and attend better ones.
He is stuck between high costs for the transfers on one hand and the prospect of students having to remain involuntarily in poorly performing schools on the other.
Until now, the federal No Child Left Behind law has permitted students in many cases to leave weaker public schools and attend better ones. While it has taken awhile for such transfers to catch on locally, it appears they are growing rapidly, as parents seek a better education for their children.
For example, this year, the school system is busing well over 400 students to schools other than the ones they are zoned for, as part of the transfer option. That is more than twice as many students as took advantage of the transfers just last year.
Only a few students choose to transfer from some schools, but in other cases, scores of students make the move. Almost 80 students who would ordinarily attend Orchard Knob Middle are instead going to Hunter Middle or Ooltewah Middle this year. And 130 students from Brainerd High have chosen to attend Ooltewah High or Sale Creek High this year instead, according to the Hamilton County Department of Education.
Those numbers are significant and indicate a perfectly understandable student and parental desire for better educational opportunities. Moreover, these are students who are attending different schools by their own and their parents' free choice, not by compulsion, so they are more likely to avail themselves of the opportunities at the higher-performing schools.
But as with any benefit, there are costs. This year alone, Hamilton County Schools is spending $830,000 to bus the hundreds of transferring students to other parts of the county. And no one pretends that schools have hundreds of thousands of spare dollars these days.
So, Smith has proposed ending the student transfer option starting as early as next year. The school system can do that because Tennessee and nine other states recently got waivers from requirements of the No Child Left Behind law.
Stopping the transfers will come as a disappointment to some parents who may have been counting on being able to send their children to a better school than the one for which the children are zoned.
If there is any silver lining, it is that Smith does not propose that the school board halt the program immediately. Instead, students who have already begun attending a different school from the one they would normally attend would be permitted to complete their time at their preferred school before reverting back to their zone. For instance, a student who is already attending a different elementary school would be able to finish out his elementary school years there before going to his zoned middle school. That would provide a measure of stability.
Still, it is a matter of great concern that a substantial number of parents in Hamilton County apparently do not feel they can get a solid education for their children at the schools for which the children are zoned. If costs are too steep to allow the transfers to other schools to continue, then we should all ask what must be done to ensure that our public schools are places of such excellence that there should be neither need nor desire for students to seek an "escape hatch."
And while federal dictation of educational standards is much to be avoided, the recently granted waivers from the achievement rules of the No Child Left Behind law should certainly not become a reason for reduced accountability in our schools.